The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 18, 2017

Pale Liberalism
Ted McAllister - 07/20/09
Saying Grace, Norman Rockwell

The Future of Liberalism by Alan Wolfe, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009)

At least since the rise of Progressivism in the United States, and probably well before, people have fought over the meaning of liberalism. In the 1930s, for example, both Hoover and Roosevelt argued over the label in what Gordon Lloyd has called the two faces of liberalism.[1] However many faces there are to liberalism, there are many contrasting hues, and the decades since the New Deal have only added to the frustration of anyone seeking definitions. It is impossible to find our way simultaneously to analytical clarity (definitions) and historical/ empirical fidelity. In this case, the impossible task is also a necessary one. We cannot abandon the label, we cannot declare, because some of us love semantic rigor and tight taxonomies, that the word has no meaning. We live in a very messy world of ideas, beliefs, policies and all the theorists in the world cannot glue together a LIBERAL that fits the competing and legitimate uses of the label.

Almost all historical accounts of liberalism take liberal ideas and sentiments to have developed as a response to a crisis of authority in Europe. With religious pluralism and with the rise of the economic and political clout of the middle classes, the claims to authority made by churches or kings seemed increasingly to be about sheer power cloaked in claims to authority. If the Church couldn’t assume the cultural right to rule and if kings and aristocrats confronted competing nodes of power and influence, how could European societies order themselves? Who should rule, and by what authority? Questions of this nature prompted both practical and philosophical reactions that included, for those who would make up the liberal lineage, a belief that tolerance was the best response to the emerging religious pluralism and that the best foundation of political order was self-evident human needs and desires rather than the summum bonum. Without a received cultural consensus about authority, early liberal thinkers emphasized human choice—humans choose their government to serve their needs. In due course, liberal thought would recognize only governments that had the “consent of the governed” as legitimate, even if the means for determining consent remained elusive.

The resulting doctrine of popular sovereignty entailed respect for the individual stripped of all social, ethnic, institutional accoutrements. As church, family, and other institutions lost authority, the individual became the primary bearer of rights—usually designated “natural” rights, which asserts a moral defense of individualism. And so with the first “liberal” regime, the US Constitution recognized formally the sovereignty of the “people” and through this document “the people” used their authority to constitute governments (federal and state) and to delegate to these governments the right to exercise the powers implied in sovereignty—sovereignty remained vested, however, with the People. The Constitution empowered the government but, more importantly, limited its power and scope so as to protect the liberties and rights vested with the people. And so the defining liberal idea, that people are by nature free and that governments should be limited, was imperfectly but definitively declared with the new American regime.

In the United States, liberalism has, since the time of Andrew Jackson at least, been the playing out of two somewhat incongruous ideas: liberty and equality. Equality first appears, naturally, as the demand for equal political power, and with it the implied argument that each person is equally worthy to exercise the power of the vote, or to hold office, or other expressions of democratic participation. But even as this political equality became an irresistible force in the Anglo-American world, questions of whether individual liberty can survive the tyranny of the majority become inevitable. Will a crude form of populism, born of political equality, lead to a soft despotism that oppresses the individual without him knowing that his liberty had been surrendered to the demos?

One way of organizing various liberal camps is to arrange them relative to their belief in equality as a moral and political end. Almost all liberals will claim that equality is a means to a greater end: liberty, but in real terms their commitment to strong, government-sponsored equality varies dramatically. Those who find themselves nearly conflating equality and liberty are virtually socialist and those who reject all but political and legal equality are libertarians.

The latter are heirs of John Stuart Mill’s response to the danger of soft despotism. Mill’s stirring apology of the sovereign individual stressed a strong theme in all subsequent liberal thought: the imperative to allow the person to create herself, to become whomever she wishes to be. This liberal imperative to personal development is both an intellectual curiosity and the great moral appeal of liberalism. It is a curiosity because the sovereign self is both the author and subject of the creative act. As a moral ideal the dream of self-creation is as old as human story-telling, only now turned from a Promethean vice into a (the) moral virtue.

When Mill wrote On Liberty, the greatest threat he espied to the ideal of individual self-creation came from democracy—from the potentially irresistible power of a mobilized majority against the eccentric desires or needs of individuals. Excessive political equality could destroy liberty, it seemed. But within a few years, in both England and the United States, the dramatic expansion of wealth and power in the hands of a few industrialists suggested that inequality of a different sort threatened the sovereign individual. With the concentration of economic power, the evolution of a new generation of machine technology, and the evolution of production techniques that undermined guilds and unions, liberals began to note that freedom from external restraint is useless if one doesn’t have the resources to develop one’s unique qualities, if one cannot have the economic means that allow for self-creation. The fight for economic equality then became a fight for individual freedom.

If the primary means of protecting individuals in an earlier age was to limit government interference in their lives, in this new age of a robust industrial capitalism, government appeared to be the only tool capable of protecting the individual from a rapacious economic system. Liberals who had feared government as a source of tyranny had to learn to love it as a protector of freedom.

In addition to these 19th century splits in the stream of liberalism, a series of events, beginning in the 1970s, have altered the linguistic terrain, making the word liberal extremely elusive, often polarizing, and usually confusing. The “neoliberalism” (as leftists often call it) of Thatcher and Reagan turned into “conservatism” in political discourse, even though it more precisely might be called right-wing liberalism. The rising populist sentiment against government solutions put liberals in a defensive posture as they now had to defend the welfare state, or parts of it, in the name of liberalism. The complex politics of global capitalism, the rapid but very uneven growth in the American economy, a series of domestic skirmishes over what misleadingly goes under the rubric “values,” had so scrambled labels as to make semantic clarity impossible by the time of the strange election of George Bush.

Confusion is wonderful, demanding that some new semantic order be articulated out of the chaos. Books defining and defending liberalism have been numerous since the Reagan years, but today those who defend liberalism (even before the election of 2008) display vigor and enthusiasm befitting a nascent movement. As a rule, those who write these books and articles think they have figured out the enemy and why it has been effective even as they have figured out a contemporary expression of liberalism that captures America’s political sweet spot. This newly updated version, this political expression that proponents believe is (re)capturing the broad middle, is what I call pale liberalism.

Pale liberals call for no great sacrifice. They smile indulgently, like the aged do at the young, at passion, at noble dreams, at sacrifice and duty. If passion persists, they fear its latent power. When liberals dream they envision a prosperous land with a tolerable record of justice, peopled by decent folk who respect the individualism of others and who find the social and moral space to work out their own lives on their own terms. An ideal, self-actualized liberal, thin and healthy in his now late middle aged body, expresses his moral commitments through his gregarious openness to the interests of those he meets, and he displays a historically unique democratic elitism as he carries his expensive organic groceries while wearing the carefully crafted casual clothes and easy gait of his species. Having traversed two thirds of his journey through this vale of tears, he finds satisfaction that he has tolerably few tears and that he knows none of the angst upon approaching the end.

Alan Wolfe’s recent apology, The Future of Liberalism is an excellent example of what I mean by pale liberalism—bourgeois and practical, rejecting high ideals in favor of the possible, rejecting passion in favor of the prosaic. Wolfe typically touts a presumed middle ground in his books and essays, but whether the ground he demarks is really in the middle or not, it is most usually squishy. His work is its strongest when it is empirical and when he teases out an alternative to polarized vocabularies or ideologies. In his book Moral Freedom, for instance, Wolfe explores the moral choices and vocabularies of citizens from eight American communities and lays bare the difficult task of moral choices in an age of such expansive individual freedom, but he also notes that these individuals have not abandoned morals or even virtues, only the ease that comes from having inherited them. But where Moral Freedom rests on limited empirical evidence from which the author gives a suggestive analysis about moral inquiry in our times, The Future of Liberalism is untethered to evidence, it is declaratory, pontifical, and the author is strangely frightened of passion. The book has the feel not of liberalism’s future but of bourgeois liberalism in senescence.

Wolfe “frames” (many liberal academic activists have employed this loaded word to advocate using language to capture a working electoral majority) the subject of liberalism in a most conservative fashion—the defining American political tradition that he finds threatened by elements outside of the broad middle. The future, therefore, depends on recovery of the past (or at least capturing the narrative about the past). The “future” of liberalism is really about “recovery”—or so the logic of Wolfe’s argument dictates. Indeed, Wolfe’s assumptions in this regard are nearly universally held among those who presently write books in defense of liberalism. Those assumptions include: 1. That liberalism is inherent in the American way; 2. That liberalism has been under assault from the right and the left; 3. That “conservatives” have done the most damage to the liberal center; 4. That the primary task today is to recover the American liberal tradition, to return America to its liberal heritage after decades of “extremist” corruption.

Wolfe’s criticism of the effect “conservatives” have had on the liberal center fails to account for the fact that the term “conservative” can be just as elusive as the term “liberal.” Of course to the degree that Wolfe and other liberals persuade readers that they are supporting the defining American tradition non-liberals become “extremists.” As liberals see the American political terrain, all participants fit on a two dimensional grid. Any three dimensional thinker is inexplicable—the globe becomes a flat dot, mountains and valleys are invisible. On the flat-land of the liberal imagination, there are only those to the right and those to the left—extremists all.

Wolfe’s political map, as a result of this limited imagination, contains many truths that lack the appropriate context, or truths that are so shaved, as though written by some crazed nominalist, as to lose all their interesting texture. So often Wolfe claims for “Liberalism” the virtues, the characteristics, the sentiments, the habits, that others would claim for “conservatism.” Because the author never defines the conservatism against which he is reacting, he effectively defines conservatives by the hodgepodge critiques he makes of a most eclectic group of people on the “right.” The closest he comes to a definition appears late in his book: “The essence of conservatism is that it wants to limit the reach of liberty and equality while the essence of modernity is to expand them.” Indeed, Wolfe “frames” conservatives.

Putting aside the incoherent uses of the label “conservative,” Wolfe declares—does not rely on empirical evidence or tease out of events their subtle implications but declares—that “conservatives can’t govern.” Declaring also that Bush was “the most conservative president of modern times,” (a statement that is meaningless absent a clear definition and absurd if one imagines conservatism to be faithful to restraining precedent), Wolfe relies on common liberal prejudices to demonstrate that because Bush failed and he was a conservative, that conservatism fails as a governing ideology. One quick reference will suffice to note the strangely axiomatic quality of Wolfe’s argument. “Hurricane Katrina should . . . be viewed as a decisive event in the history of political philosophy.” Why? Because the federal government failed utterly to respond to this disaster and the reason they failed was because of government incompetence born of ideological nonsense. “After Katrina, no one except the most ideological can still take these (conservative ideas of limited government) as axioms of political life.” Even though the government response to the Katrina hurricane is a primary argument for the failure of conservative ideology, Wolfe never follows evidence, never tells the story in its rich and complex detail. He declares rather than argues—his authority and the prejudices of sympathetic readers is all that he requires to make his case.

If we don’t get a compelling definition of conservatism, Wolfe does provide a variety of characteristics, sentiments and ideas (he emphasizes three ways of defining liberalism: substance, procedure, and temperament) that collectively define liberalism. Wolfe appropriately places one philosophical ideal as the irreducible core of liberalism, no matter its variety: individual autonomy. On this subject Wolfe is thoughtful, sometimes insightful, as he navigates the various tensions in this defining ideal. It stands for independence and so is closely linked to the original meaning of the word liberty. But the obvious and often changing forms of interdependence force one to explain what kind of independence one wishes to assert and what kind of institutional, cultural, and historical imbeddedness is required for the individual to be meaningfully independent. However, insofar as individual autonomy reaches beyond the more political meanings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to capture the alluring prospect of self-creation and self-redefinition, Wolfe’s account is insufficiently occupied with the antinomian tendency in matters of moral authority. Moreover, liberal theorists more generally take scant notice of the often crushing responsibility people feel to create themselves—to craft from the cultural flotsam around them a soul that is both chosen and authentic.

Understandably, Wolfe puts equality as a second, but subordinate, liberal ideal. Equality is always in the service of individual autonomy. As a result, the quest for equality changes depending on the kinds of inequality that emerge and how much they threaten individuals who should have the absolute right to define their lives on their own terms. The tendency of American and European governments to use the power of the state to equalize economic conditions, to provide basic goods, is an example of liberalism adjusting to changing circumstances to protect individuals from evolving threats to their independence.

In addition to these “substantive commitments,” Wolfe notes that liberalism is also procedural, affirming constitutionalism, the rule of law, and more generally a regime that promotes fairness and impartiality. These procedures are necessary when a nation contains great diversity. In the absence of a hard consensus on basic goods, liberal proceduralism makes it possible for all parties to get a fair hearing, if not their way.

More intriguing, Wolfe also stresses liberal “dispositions” that are part of the liberal way of thinking—habits of the mind and the heart. Wolfe, in ways that put one in mind of Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, finds in the pre-political form the real liberalism, in this case manifesting such things as a “preference for realism,” “an inclination to deliberate,” “a commitment to tolerance” and “an appreciation of openness.” He is on to something here, but the author doesn’t explore it fully. Dispositions, inculcated in many diverse ways, are the heart of any liberal regime—without these dispositions a people can affirm all the doctrines of liberalism, can create all the procedures meant to produce a liberal regime, and the regime will still fail. Liberalism is ultimately a way of being in the world, not a set of reified ideas. As such one cannot expect it to be an export. Liberalism is a cultural product, and of this Wolfe is keenly aware—but the full implications of this fact are not evident in his book.

Depending on how one categorizes such things, many of the dispositions that Wolfe characterizes as liberal could be understood as part of the conservative’s mental habits. However, two sentiments are either missing or dismissed as dangerous by Wolfe. First, the author stresses the liberal preference for “realism.” By this he means to stab at the romantic tendencies in both the right and the left. Romance is something not allowed in liberalism. Closely related, one notices that Wolfe’s description of liberal dispositions leaves no room for a sense of the tragic nature of life. Throughout the book, Wolfe finds passion, angst, romance, to be problems—dispositions that drive various non-liberals to challenge or even threaten the liberal regime.

In one of the most illuminating insights of this book, Wolfe defends the liberal love of the prosaic. Liberalism, he writes, “developed throughout the nineteenth century as a reaction against Romanticism.” One is reminded of the famous observation made by Lionel Trilling in his 1950 book, The Liberal Imagination, where he asserted that liberalism had dominated American politics whereas non-liberals had dominated America’s literary imagination. For Wolfe this is as it should be since politics should be kept “close to the ground.” Romanticism as applied to politics tends toward nostalgic paeans to a golden age or toward visions of a perfected future: the passionate sins of the right and the left. Romantic politics has such a dreadful modern record of unleashed passions, scorched earth, devastated cultures, final solutions, that the liberal taste for the pragmatic compromise, the earth-bound debate about goods and needs, is the only appropriate disposition for a modern, pluralistic word. Pale liberalism is the only legitimate liberalism. In the American context, populism is the greatest threat to the pacific regime of pale liberalism, emerging like a periodic dust storm from the heartland, driven by passion and an unseemly certainty.

This pragmatist’s fear of romance, I suspect, helps account for the strange dichotomies that Wolfe employs as his way of contrasting liberals and their enemies. “Liberalism begins,” asserts Wolfe, “with the conviction that the question of human nature is up to human beings to decide; even if their nature makes them bad, their works can make them good.” This bold and complex assertion serves as the keynote of a most maddening chapter, “In Praise of Artifice,” in which the burden of his argument is that humans are radically free and that appeals to human nature are both deterministic and laced with dangerous passions. Rousseau serves as the great seducer in this story—a powerful and bold thinker who voiced for moderns a lament that civilization had corrupted us, had alienated us from our true selves, our nature. Culture, as Wolfe reads Rousseau, is a distorting, even disfiguring, artifice that has created the vices that plague human society. Kant provided the response to Rousseau’s dangerously romantic yearnings by stressing human artifice, human understanding, and therefore human control over our destiny and even our beings.

Wolfe’s dichotomy—Rousseau v. Kant—is fascinating and puzzling. Somehow people as different as Jerry Falwell and Richard Dawkins (a fundamentalist and an atheist) become part of the spiritual lacuna produced by Rousseau. The grouping is interesting but cavalierly reductive, requiring perverse labels to be attached to all manner of people, including the odd label of “neo-Rousseauian” for the imminent historian and public intellectual, Wilfred McClay. The Procrustean bed of Wolfe’s philosophical taxonomy distorts so much at this crucial point in the book. The very title of the chapter, “In Praise of Artifice,” leads one to anticipate a discussion of Edmund Burke. Burke’s response to Rousseau is of a different sort than the one provided by Kant and opens up a way of thinking that is less dichotomous—less nature v. culture, or freedom v. determinism. Burke, the great Irish Whig, defended liberty as powerfully as any thinker of his age and yet does not offer a reductive approach to human nature, culture, tradition, or liberty. The complexity and rootedness of Burke’s arguments make him ill-suited to a dichotomous argument and therefore inconvenient for Wolfe’s account. But had Wolfe thought through Burke in this chapter then he would have had to deal with a species of thinker who is both liberal and conservative, and yet reductively neither. Wolfe’s book depends on a reductive categorization of groups, putting all manner of distinctly different kinds of thinkers and political actors together by virtue of their disagreement, on one point or another, with Wolfe’s reified liberalism.

The future of liberalism, as articulated by Wolfe, is to return as America’s governing ideology. By stressing that liberalism is the historic center of American political life and by emphasizing that liberalism is particularly suited to the ever-changing or evolving nature of modern life, Wolfe has framed political life in such a way as to place those who fall outside of his definition as extremists. Defined properly, Wolfe’s historical claims to the liberal nature of the American regime could contribute or even revivify the great American political conversation. As a framing technique, Wolfe’s actual characterization of liberalism and its American enemies is a most illiberal closure to the conversation, contributing to the baleful tendency of political partisans of all stripes to assert their right to speak for the broad American center.

Wolfe gives intellectual form to the pale liberalism that I caricatured earlier. The overlooked dangers of such liberals come from their provincialism painted up to appear cosmopolitan—the tendency to generalize their own experiences of the world. When liberals believe that they are tolerant, when they think that their easygoing demeanor in the face of those who disagree, when they are so certain that passionately held beliefs by non-liberals are proof of their immaturity or ignorance, then there is no real listening—no real communication.

A belief that human nature is plastic and that humans can choose to remake themselves, is dangerously dismissive of the experiences of the vast majority of humans in history. It is time to reopen the questions about human nature, about human autonomy, about the desirability self-creation. Liberals should, in brief, broaden their horizons to ponder competing views of human flourishing. A return to the most ubiquitous and pressing questions would be a start: Who are we? Why are we here? Under what obligations do we live our lives? What does our inevitable death teach us about purposes, individual and collective? Liberalism began by orienting our political thinking around our desires, pushing out of the public sphere the normative questions.  We win an important victory if we make these questions matters of public concern.


  1. While John Gray’s book by this title is more famous, Lloyd’s book, The Two Faces of Liberalism: How the Hoover-Roosevelt Debate Shapes the Twenty-First Century, focuses particularly on this American debate about the nature and direction of liberalism.

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